Thursday, December 31, 2009

They just don't make 'em like they used to

It's always nice to rewatch something you loved and have it be just as great as you remember, if not moreso.

Swordsman II is pretty much the archetypal wire-fu movie; it has all the hallmarks of the HK New Wave of the '80s and early '90s that made me fall in love with Asian cinema, and I gotta say that I enjoyed rewatching this more than any new fu film I recall seeing in the last several years. There is a Swordsman I, but I've never seen it; I'm told it's not nearly as good as SII, and doesn't even star Jet Li. There is a sequel/spinoff; The East is Red is often referred to as "Swordsman III", and Brigitte Lin reprises her role as SII's scene-stealing villain, but frankly I don't recall it being nearly as good-- in fact, I barely recall it at all, which definitely ain't a good sign.

SII, on the other hand, I recalled in fairly good detail. There's a whole bunch of clan warfare going on, which is exacerbated by the arrival of some Japanese mercenaries, who end up being hired by fantastically named evil androgyne Asia the Invincible to back hir play to seize power. A wandering do-gooder and his pals 'n' gals get embroiled in Asia's blatant naughtiness, and from there it's all flying sleeves and knitting needle kung fu and pretty much the best movie ever. Jet Li gets to play massively against type as the titular swordsman, who's actually a lusty, lazy kung-fu drunkard. He has a hell of a lot of fun hamming it up (and playing the similar Fong Sai Yuk in that series), and it's a shame pretty much everything else he's ever done has him playing stone-faced stoic types.

Man, Tsui Hark and "Tony" Ching Siu-Tung really knew how to make a movie. Swordsman II basically has it all; awesome aerial fu-battles, copious melodrama and corny "humor", gorgeous sets and cinematography, and a plot that's random enough to be amusing but not enough to be confusing, unlike some recent movies I could name.

A slightly bad translation can add to the ambiance; Tai Seng's DVD has different subtitles than the version I saw back in the day, as I don't recall any reference to "Japanese gypsy soldiers". That delightfully stilted language particular to HK subs can often reach a kind of poetry. There's a nice Ric Meyer commentary track if you'd actually like to have more than a cursory grasp of this film, but honestly that wouldn't get in the way of your enjoyment; it sure didn't spoil mine any.

So basically, this movie is kind of my Platonic ideal of fu filmmaking. There's just so much insane, jaw-dropping zest in every frame. Perhaps I've been spoiled and shouldn't expect every movie to be this good-- and lord knows there were more than enough turds even in the golden age of which we speak-- but it does break my heart a little bit that this kind of gonzo filmmaking has largely gone out of style. But hey, I'll never stop looking.

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